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Firefighters frenetic as forest blazes rage on

B.C.’s wildfire season is picking up steam after a wet and cool start to the summer.

Darren Handschuh/The Canadian Press

B.C.'s wildfire season is picking up steam after a wet and cool start to the summer.

Dozens of firefighters have been called in from out of province, and officials say the warm weather and lightning strikes anticipated for this week could spark a flurry of new fires.

"Right now for the fire danger rating for the province we're sitting at a 'high' across the board, with many pockets of 'extreme,' " provincial fire information officer Erin Catherall said in an interview Sunday.

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June and July were marked by relatively cool temperatures and rain. August, however, has been the polar opposite and Ms. Catherall said crews are the busiest they have been all summer.

As of Sunday, B.C. had seen 1,039 wildfires this season. The ten-year average for this point is 1,473.

Of the fires this season, Ms. Catherall said 406 – or 39 per cent – were caused by humans. The ten-year average for human-caused fires is also 39 per cent.

Steve Thomson, B.C.'s minister of forests, lands, and natural resources, last week urged caution when it comes to campfires.

B.C. crews will be aided by 79 out-of-province fire personnel who arrived from the Yukon, Saskatchewan and Ontario this weekend.

At different points this year, B.C. dispatched firefighters to Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories.

One area that's kept B.C. firefighters especially busy is the province's northeast region.

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Jill Chimko, an information officer in the Prince George Fire Centre, said none of the blazes in the region are near homes or communities. A few, however, are near oil and gas infrastructure.

Ms. Chimko said one plant, three kilometres from the Pesh Lake fire, has been on evacuation alert for about a week. A sprinkler system has been set up around the plant.

When asked if there's any difference between fighting a fire near oil and gas infrastructure and fighting one near homes, Ms. Chimko said yes.

"When you look at dealing with oil and gas companies, they take a lot of the precautions themselves. They've done a lot of clearing around the gas plants to protect themselves from forest fires. They have a lot of equipment on hand to help build guards to help protect them from forest fires, which normally a homeowner wouldn't have," she said.

Ms. Chimko said there is a possibility of rain in the northern region Tuesday, which would certainly be welcome. But, as Ms. Catherall noted, just a couple days of heat can dry forest fuels back out.

Ms. Catherall said the province has spent $90-million on wildfires this season. However, she said a direct comparison to previous years isn't accurate because the Wildfire Management Branch has changed its accounting procedures to include items such as training. She said the ten-year average is $84-million.

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That figure is elevated by two catastrophic fire seasons, one in 2003, the other in 2009. There were more than 2,500 fires in 2003 at a cost of $375-million. Nearly $400-million – a B.C. record – was spent fighting wildfires three years ago.

When asked how long wildfire season typically lasts, Ms. Catherall said it can vary.

"It can reach as far as November or October," she said. "But it's the magical question. No one really knows for sure."

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